“We must open our eyes and act before we find ourselves living in a fascist Europe”, the Croatian feminist activist Marinella Matejčić told me. We met in late March in front of an old, local church in Verona, Italy – the day after Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega party, spoke at a major gathering in the city of US, Russian and other ultra-conservative activists, aristocrats, and their growing list of political allies.
Matejčić was dressed in the distinctive red cloak and white bonnet of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale characters; that novel depicts the lives of women as reproductive slaves in a totalitarian state. Italian far right activists were rumoured to be inside the church, attending a Latin mass. Outside, Matejčić and eight other women lined up along the wall and bowed their heads.
It was a silent – provocative – protest. Atwood’s novel is a “too accurate presentation of the times that we live in”, Matejčić said afterwards. They wanted “to highlight the clerical-fascism” that appears to be alive and kicking across Europe, she told me – from far right attempts to ban abortion in Poland to the rise of the Vox party in Spain that opposes ‘feminazis’ and laws against gender-based violence.
As people exited the church, some stopped to jeer at the Croatian handmaids. “At last, a woman who keeps quiet!" one exclaimed. Others prayed ‘for their souls’. The air in the narrow road was tense – Verona, famous to tourists internationally as the ‘city of love’, Romeo and Juliet, is also a hotbed of local far-right and fascist activity, including street violence and threats against women, LGBTIQ people and migrants.
I had a deep sense of paranoia that something nasty was about to kick-off outside that church – though it did not. “We were surrounded by some faces full of hate”, another Croatian handmaid, Karmela Segvic, told me. And yet, she insisted: “we know we are not wrong, we are just fighting for our rights”.
In Croatia, Segvic has been involved in feminist movements for several years, working with survivors of domestic violence. This, she says, has made her realise the danger posed by "fundamentalists and politicians" who are "using their power and money to retrieve the rights we already gained". She told me: "I just want to be free".
After marching through the city centre, the handmaids stripped their costumes off, as if superwomen. I felt drawn to these bold women. They were gleeful, hugging each other and dancing in the streets after finishing their protest.
But, as we turned a corner, I noticed two men following them. I had seen them outside the church, too. Were they undercover police, or local fascists? I followed them as well, with a video camera, until the activists had made it safely to their car.
The World Congress of Families (WCF) network has been meeting internationally for years but this year’s event in Verona was particularly high-profile. Numerous far-right politicians from Italy spoke along with Princess Gloria of Thurn and Taxis – a key ally of Pope Francis’s critics in Rome and a friend of Steve Bannon. Representatives of German and French far right parties were also reportedly there.
Outside the event, a local leader of the Italian neo-fascist Forza Nuova party gave a press conference, calling for a referendum against abortion. At a march through the city, banners were visible proclaiming “God, Nation, Family” – a classic fascist slogan from the Mussolini era. But there were also mass counter-protests – with 30,000 people joining street demonstrations for women’s and LGBTIQ rights.
I went to Verona from the UK, where I work for the global independent media website openDemocracy that is tracking the transnational backlash against women’s and LGBTIQ rights. Recently, we revealed that a dozen US Christian right groups poured $50million of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the last decade, pushing similar ‘traditional values’ agendas as the region’s rising far right movements.
While my colleagues went undercover inside the WCF meeting, I followed the counter-protests – documenting the historic mobilisation against this ultra-conservative network and the vision of ‘ideal’ societies they promote: where women don’t have access to safe, legal abortion, and where the married heterosexual couple who have many children is revered above all others.
Women had travelled to Verona by car, train and plane from Poland, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, Belarus, Argentina, and from all over Italy to join these protests. This far-right surge is “the most dangerous threat to modern democracies”, said Matejčić, one of several Croatian activists I spoke to.
Segvic, who came with her from Zagreb, talked with pride about making their handmaid’s outfits themselves, and carrying them with excitement and care across the border from Croatia to Italy. “That was our way of saying that we all have the same problems in Europe and that we are together”, she told me.
It resonated strongly with me – reminding me of experiences I’ve had with the Sisters Uncut feminist direct action group in London. I know well the strength and creativity of women and LGBTIQ people forming communities of resistance against facisms, fundamentalisms and state violence. I know the joy that comes with standing up to those in power – along with the danger, the adrenaline and the fire in the belly.
At openDemocracy, I had worked on an investigation into this ultra-conservative network, compiling and analysing a list of the more than 700 speakers on the programmes for WCF events since 2004. We found a sharp increase in European far right politicians speaking at these gatherings over the last few years in particular.
At a recent Sisters Uncut meeting in London, dedicated to political education, I was also inspired by Akwugo Emejulu, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, who urged us to record our own activism, and take control of our own stories of resistance, too often excluded by mainstream accounts.
Ahead of the WCF meeting in Verona, the Italian feminist movement Non Una Di Meno (NUDM) issued an urgent call for international solidarity – asking activists from across Europe join their protest against the congress and its opposition to abortion rights, sex education, same sex marriage, contraception, and even divorce.
Weeks before arriving in Verona, I connected online with other young women planning to attend the protest from across Europe. Several recorded short video diary entries along their journeys, and sent them to me. On route, my phone wouldn’t stop beeping with enthusiastic messages of camaraderie from these women.
“An outpost of hate”
It was “no surprise” that Verona hosted the WCF, an Italian feminist told me, when I arrived. She spoke to me on condition of anonymity citing fears of a backlash from local fascist groups or the Italian police, describing the city as an “outpost of hate”.
Verona has long been a landmark for Catholic traditionalist groups which have close ties to the far right and local politicians. Author and activist, Emanuele Del Medico, warns that the “Veronification” of Italian politics is also “absolutely replicable at European level”. Last year, Verona declared itself Italy’s first anti-abortion city.
The night before tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets against the WCF, and in support of women’s and LGBTIQ rights, a photo was circulated on social media of a racist, fascist group, roaming the streets of Verona, apparently aimed at international activists, with the threatening hashtag: #Dontwalkaroundverona.
Some activists sent me anxious messages and feared joining the protests the following day, despite having crossed Europe to join them.
Serah-Daisy Ulyatt from Sisters Uncut said that “as a woman of colour” in particular, she felt “demotivated, nervous and unsafe”. Though she'd participated in feminist protests in the UK for years, she described feeling "safe" and "at home" in these spaces in comparison, as she knew the context and laws and her own rights.
Though there was also light that pierced through this darkness. The night I arrived in Verona, I met Yuri Guaiana from the LGBTIQ rights group All Out, standing next to a huge projector reflecting messages embracing all families – rather than the WCF’s narrow definition of ‘traditional families’ – onto a medieval stone wall.
Guaiana warned that ultra-conservative groups connected to far right parties “already have access to power and there is certainly a risk that they will gain even more power in the upcoming European elections”. He said they wanted to “light up Verona” and highlight “that love is what makes a family and that all families matter!”
This emphasis – reclaiming the ‘city of love’ – was alive on the streets on the day of the protests, which felt like a joyous carnival, with loudspeakers blaring music, drums, dancing in the streets, costumes, bright colours, and banners and placards with the creative, multi-lingual slogans of feminists from across Europe.
At Sisters Uncut, we work to create safe spaces amidst state violence, for instance by occupying and reclaiming an empty women’s prison and a deserted council flat – and opening them up for community festivals. Similarly, the counter-WCF protest transformed the streets of far-right Verona into a safe community space.
A local activist with the Italian feminist movement NUDM said that, after these demonstrations, they feel “stronger” and “more united in the fight” against fascisms and Christian fundamentalism. “We are worried”, she told me, “but not scared”.
“Solidarity is in the air”
“Solidarity is in the air”, said Evgenia Ivanova from Belarus, who crossed several borders to join the feminists gathering in Verona.
Belarus has one of Europe’s most liberal laws on abortion, legalised in 1955. But now she fears that fundamentalist forces will mirror actions in other countries and try to restrict it. For this reason, she says, they've built links with their Polish sisters fighting for abortion rights, and want to do the same with other European countries.
The Italian feminists didn’t just organise a protest against the WCF – they took over the city for the whole weekend with talks, screenings and workshops for women’s and LGBTIQ rights. On the final day, they held an assembly of feminist movements.
I had never seen anything quite like this. Young women from Bosnia spoke about organising Sarajevo's first gay pride parade, for September 2019. Kurdish women described their gender revolution in Rojava against Islamic fundamentalism, along with their new hunger strikes to demand the release of political prisoners in Turkey.
From Argentina, activists reported how they organised their iconic ‘green wave’ protests for abortion rights – and how more than 3000 women left the Catholic church after their government’s decision not to liberalise the country’s abortion law.
I heard problems in the UK echoed throughout Europe and indeed the world – including similar attacks on sex education and abortion clinics. Across borders, far-right groups claim they defend women and blame migrants and men of colour for sexual violence. But rape is rife in every community – racism is not the answer.
Looking around the room, I saw a new generation of feminists forming a key frontline of resistance to these far right groups that would imprison women in their homes as traditional, subservient subjects and others beyond the borders of a fortress Europe. Some shared concrete plans and previews of calls for solidarity to come.
Zoe Fauquex, from Switzerland, told me that a nationwide ‘Women’s Strike’ is being organised after the European Parliament elections. Inspired by the NUDM Italian feminist movement, they want to invite many of the activists they met in Verona.
NUDM are also planning another cross-border gathering in Italy this fall. The rise of fascism and religious fundamentalism “isn’t just a problem in Europe”, one of the movement’s spokespeople told me. They’re thus looking to places like Brazil, India, Uganda and the US to hold an international feminist festival in 2020.
Segvic from Croatia concluded: “This is just the beginning”. Returning to Croatia, they organised their next protest: a ‘walk for freedom’ and reproductive rights which took place this weekend to counter the annual anti-abortion ‘walk for life’.
“This is just the beginning”
Arriving back in the UK energised and inspired by these women, I sat on a panel with Sisters Uncut the following week at SOAS university in London. I spoke about this new international resistance with other feminists from Women's Strike UK.
One month later, I chaired a panel with Sisters Uncut at the University of Cambridge. Former Black Panther and political prisoner Angela Davis was in the audience. The focus of the event was on strengthening cross-generational and transatlantic connections between women of colour organising against regressive forces.
In my years of activism in the UK, I've had few opportunities to meet other activists from other countries – and now in just a few months I've shared ideas, strategies and stories with women from across Europe and beyond.
I talked to Emejulu, from the University of Warwick about this. “These connections between feminists are not new – we always see such solidarity politics during times of crisis”, she said. But, amid “an emboldened far right and the attack on migrants' rights and women's rights, those solidaristic struggles… have now been reactivated”.
The professor, who studies the resistance of women of colour across Europe, described how activists are “building links with each other as their citizenship and humanity is questioned” and emphasised that “the cross-border resistances we are seeing is the result of the slow, painful but essential work of solidarity politics”.
She called it “heartening to see that anti-racist, anti-fascist and feminist activists are undertaking renewed efforts across Europe to counter white supremacy” – but said “we should not be surprised that women of colour are leading the fight against fascism as they are too often at the sharp end of fascist violence”.
Living in the UK, in the heart of empire and amid heated Brexit debates, often feels demoralising and exhausting. The relentless backlash against the rights of women, LGBTIQ people, migrants and people of colour happens every day and seeks to confine us within nation states and domestic settings.
But the truth is I’ve felt more powerful than ever in the past few months. A new generation of young women is breaking free. I know that collective resistance across borders based on love, solidarity and respect is the only way we’ll defeat the hateful rhetoric and policies of fascists and fundamentalists. And I know I’ll meet these bold young women again soon, as we continue to blossom into a global movement.